Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.
Captain America must battle an old friend who’s now fighting for the other side, and root out traitors within his own camp…
Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) can’t escape his past and his past can’t escape him. Nostalgia, for good or bad, runs throughout this film. For example, there’s a lovely scene where Steve visits a museum exhibition about his own Captain America persona. It’s a character beat, showing us how he misses his old life, as well as a neat opportunity to remind the audience about his backstory. Steve also visits old flame Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), who’s now in her 90s, while the film’s eponymous villain is his old friend Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), who’s now a zombie-like assassin. But the movie looks forward as much as it looks back.
After the 1940s boys’ own adventure of the first Captain America movie, we’re now in the modern day. Having fought the Nazis during the Second World War, Steve has woken up from a seven-decade freezing to find fascism alive and well in 21st-century Washington, DC. You see, the counter-terrorism agency he works for, SHIELD, is not quite the all-American, squeaky-clean organisation we first thought. It’s actually riddled with insurgents from a far-right cult called Hydra. (It’s also far more famous than in previous movies. Remember when Tony Stark and Pepper Potts had never heard of it? Well, now SHIELD has a humungous headquarters on the shore of the Potomac River and a budget that would dwarf Premier League football.)
When the bad guys seemingly kill father figure Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson), Steve goes on the run. A secret agent isolated from his support network is hardly a new idea – James Bond’s done it a few times, it’s Jason Bourne’s permanent state of being – but the film still sells it as an exciting development. And Steve’s not all alone. Refreshingly, there’s no clichéd will-they-won’t-they in his partnership with fellow agent-on-the-lam Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson, enjoying the increased screen time). She’s not a love interest, and neither is she tiresomely perfect. In genre films, as a well-intentioned reaction to soppy Bond girls who scream a lot, female characters are sometimes presented as unflappable and flawless – in other words, they’re quite boring. Batman v Superman’s Diana Prince and Die Another Day’s Jinx are good examples of this; Jillian Holtzmann from the 2016 Ghostbusters is another, albeit in a comedy film. Thankfully, Natasha has more depth: she gets upset when she thinks Fury is dead, and generally has a droll line in irony. (Come on, misogynistic Marvel. Give her a solo film.)
Actually, as superhero movies go, this one’s pretty good for female characters. As well as Natasha and Peggy, there’s Cobie Smulders’s Maria Hill and Emily VanCamp’s Sharon, two strong SHIELD agents who get nice roles in the story. Steve’s best male friend, meanwhile, is new character Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie). He’s a dude Steve meets while out jogging. He’s also a war vet and they bond over their civvy-street problems. The film is so good that you forgive it the ever-so-convenient plotting of Steve’s random new pal being in possession of some top-secret military equipment that comes in very handy during the action climax. That climax obviously features the Winter Soldier himself, who we eventually learn is Steve’s childhood friend Bucky. We thought he’d died in the first film, but it turns out Hydra saved him, rebuilt him and now periodically use him as an assassin. He certainly looks cool – metal arm, post-apocalyptic facemask, lank hair – but in truth he’s a bit of a red herring.
The story’s Big Bad is actually SHIELD executive Alexander Pearce. He’s played well by Robert Redford, whose presence provides a cute link to classic thrillers Three Days of the Condor (1975) and All The President’s Men (1976), films with an similar edgy, paranoid tone. It’s maybe not the biggest surprise in the history of cinema when Pearce is revealed as the bad guy – why else cast a heavyweight like Robert Redford? – but what is a surprise is the return of Dr Zola (Toby Jones) from the previous Captain America film. He appears on a brilliantly retro computer screen when Steve and Natasha find Hydra’s secret lair, which is full of 1970s-vintage equipment. Natasha even makes a joke about the old-school terminal, quoting 1983 cyber-thriller WarGames (“Would you like to play a game?”).
In fact, generally, The Winter Soldier is a movie that’s aware of pop culture, which is rare in the superhero genre. As well as nods to WarGames and Redford’s CV, we get a cheeky reference to Pulp Fiction, while Steve keeps a to-do list that includes seeing I Love Lucy, Star Wars and Rocky, and listening to Nirvana and Marvin Gaye. All this keeps the film fresh. It’s a big-budget action movie and yet characters are clever, make jokes, trade banter, and feel like people with lives – so everything’s more involving and engaging.
Credit must go to directors Anthony and Joe Russo. They make sure each element of the film is as sharp as it can be: it’s often funny, it’s often exciting, the story has a bit of substance, tension is built effectively, and the incidental music is terrific. Most commendably, some of the action scenes are sensational: the percussive, visceral attack on Nick Fury’s car; Natasha’s slick, acrobatic fights; Steve’s battering-ram chase of Bucky; the brawl in the lift… What a film. There’s intrigue, espionage and mistrust. There’s wit, pathos and drama. There’s action, fun and Christopher Nolan-style theatricality. A great sequel. A great superhero film. A great film.
Nine Smithsonian security guards out of 10